February 11, 2007
In 1980, during Alberta's last energy boom, the federal Liberals - who had been out of office for nine months during the Joe Clark hiccup - won re-election by portraying Clark as a puppet of the Alberta government.
One Liberal ad that ran only in Ontario contained footage of Clark (a prime minister from Alberta) and Premier Peter Lougheed talking together and smiling. The voice-over said, "Ontarians should pay attention to the budget that demonstrates how easily Joe Clark would give in to Premier Lougheed and Alberta on energy prices."
Privately, among party organizers, Liberal campaign manager Keith Davey loved to sum up his campaign strategy as "Screw the West, we'll take the rest!"
During the election, there was no talk of the National Energy Program (NEP) the Liberals would impose on the West one year later, a program that taxed away about $160 billion from Alberta's economy during the 1980s.
Only once during the campaign did Liberal leader Pierre Trudeau make even a vague reference to his plans should his Grits retake office. He told a meeting of the Halifax Board of Trade that he would impose a "made-in-Canada" price if elected, one that would force Alberta and the other energy-producing provinces to sell their oil and gas at below world prices within Canada.
Publicly, the Liberals claimed their interest in Alberta's energy was simply to ensure "self-sufficiency," so Canada would not be dependent on foreign energy sources. However, as Marc Lalonde, the architect of the NEP, would later admit, the major impetus behind the program wasn't "Canadianization" of the energy industry (driving out the American companies that dominated the oil and gas sector), or getting more money from the oil industry, "or even self-sufficiency. The determinant factor was the fiscal imbalance between the provinces and the federal government."
While the Liberals told voters their goals were more Canadian ownership and decreased reliance on foreign oil, their real purpose was to make sure Ottawa remained the big dog of Confederation.
The Liberals were worried that if Alberta and the West became too rich, Ottawa would lose some of its ability to dictate national policy. Ideas other than the Liberals' might become influential and that would never do.
So they devised a scheme to tax away our prosperity and wrap the attack up in noble rhetoric.
Well, it looks like 1980 all over again. Only this time instead of self-sufficiency as the Liberal buzz phrase for their raid on the West's once-again booming economy, it will be "sustainable development." Instead of economic nationalism as the excuse for their power grab, the Liberals will use the environment. They will claim they are merely out to save the planet from global warming, but their real goal will be to save Ottawa's chokehold on power.
In the upcoming campaign, they will make scant mention of their schemes to wrest control of the West's newfound money and power, but expect them to portray Alberta-based Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a shill for Big Oil and the Alberta government.
Expect them to run ads in some regions (but not others), charging that Harper doesn't care about the environment, that he only cares about helping the West get richer, even if it means destroying the planet for your kids.
But after the election, expect the Liberals - should they win - to look for draconian new ways to impose themselves on the oil and gas industry.
Indeed, this past week, we were given strong hints of what a Liberal government might do to the West.
Mark Holland, an Ontario Liberal MP who was made his party's Natural Resources critic by new Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, gave two staggering interviews on radio, one with Charles Adler of Adler Online and the other with Dave Rutherford.
On Adler's Thursday show, Holland was asked whether the Liberals would limit oilsands expansion in order to ensure Canada could meet its Kyoto emissions targets.
"Exactly," he replied.
Asked whether his party might even impose limits on how much oil could be taken from the sands, Holland said "Yeah, I think what you are going to see is we're going to say you cannot exploit that resource, basically go in there and pump it out as fast as you can to give it to the Americans and sell out our national interests and blow apart our emissions targets."
It's all the old, tired Liberal shibboleths - anti-Americanism, economic nationalism, regional scaremongering - rolled into one.
Friday, Holland went further on the Rutherford show.
When asked whether the Liberals might nationalize the oilsands if Alberta refused to go along with Ottawa's development caps, Holland said his party would try to "work with them collaboratively," but "of course, if they refuse to work with us ... there will be consequences."
About a year ago, a reader asked me to explain the NEP. He had been too young to remember it.
Don't worry, my young friend. You're about to live through NEP II.
Write to Lorne Gunter at: email@example.com
Copyright 2007 - The Edmonton Journal